Don’t Let the Men Crowd You!

Posted by: Valeria Marcus

The most valuable lesson I learned in the early 80s was not to give up on one’s dream.  It was at that time that I felt threatened by chauvinistic male photographers.  It was also through that experience that I gained self-confidence in my early career as a photojournalist.

I interviewed for photojournalists positions with The New York Times, New York Post, Newsweek and Life magazine.  While the male photo editors were nice enough they failed to hire me as a staffer.  The New York Times did give me a freelance assignment, however, to photograph Congressman Major Owens at The House of the Lord Church political rally in Brooklyn. But did The New York Times print them? No.  Fortunately, Mel Scott, Life magazine’s editor asked me to critique an entire magazine of photographs, and I’m pleased to say that he agreed with my input.  He then gave me twenty rolls of film with which I chose to photograph scenes of people’s daily lives in my Boerum Hill neighborhood. Life developed, reviewed and made contact sheets of my photos, but then didn’t hire me.

When a female photo editor at Weekly Westsider hired me as a freelancer, my first assignment was “Take Back the Night,” a march protesting unsolved rapes and murders of women in Manhattan. Dodging my way around the numerous male photographers who consistently crowded me out made the job very difficult and it became nearly impossible to get the photos I needed for the assignment.  It was quite obvious that they were annoyed by my presence there.  The following day every newspaper’s photo of the event, including mine in the Weekly Westsider, was identical.  Was I paid the same rate as those male photographers?  No.

It was a similar situation when Wilbert Tatum, editor of Amsterdam News, hired me, once again, as a freelancer. While I was grateful, it was becoming apparent that I was never going to get one of those staffer jobs held by my male counterparts. Wilbert gave me two assignments.  One was photographing Abbey Lincoln at an event in Greenwich Village where I was the only female photographer and not warmly greeted.  So I got a great photo of the celebrated jazz vocalist and headed out of there.  Next, I was sent to Manhattan to shoot an apartment.  Of course, the apartment was owned by a male who gave me one of those “why is she here?” looks.  Being a woman and being young were once again not in my favor, but he did oblige and I was able to get what I needed. After all that did Amsterdam News pay me?  No.

The most gracious photo editor I met was James Kennedy at Newsweek, who hired me for that paper’s photography department.  However, the job never materialized because I moved home after my father passed.

My experience as a photojournalist and dealing with male editors and photographers was not always pleasant. Another example was when I was covering Mainland’s High School graduation in New Jersey for Gannett News.  There, the principal mistook me for a student and rushed up to me wanting to see identification.  He later apologized.

The double standard I experienced as a photojournalist was unforgettable, and I’ve dealt with some of those same issues since becoming a painter two decades ago.  Yes, it’s also a male-dominated field, but the skills I acquired early on have taught me to be more aggressive in getting ahead. In fact, four art dealers have considered taking me on and what a great compliment that is!





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